Foresight Update 51
A publication of the Foresight Institute
by Judy Conner
[Columnist note: Being a nano-newcomer and true layperson, I am one of many who are just beginning to understand what the big deal is about something so small. The past month’s news coverage ranges from out-and-out imaginary fiction to scientific fact. Foresight Institute, as “a leader in the discussion of nanotechnology” (New York Times, February 3, 2003), and its impacts on our society, was mentioned in several of these articles.]
Prey Book Release Reaches a Huge Audience of Nano-Neophytes
As they say in Hollywood, nanotechnology really hit the big time the past couple of months. The release of Michael Crichton’s fiction thriller Prey and the accompanying article in Parade magazine reached humongous numbers of nano-neophytes. Many of these nano-neophytes are outside the traditional demographics of those who are exposed to nanotechnology.
Here are a few numbers to illustrate how broad an audience was reached by the book and the article. HarperCollins published Prey on November 25, 2002 with a first printing of 1,580,000 copies. As of mid-March, according to Publishers Weekly, Prey has been on the top ten bestsellers fiction list for fourteen weeks.
More notable is the mass media reach of Parade. “Could Tiny Machines Rule the World?” an article written by Crichton that ran on November 24, 2002. According to the publication’s website, their circulation is 35,900,000 and is distributed to a readership that is 52% female. The insert magazine is distributed by more than 330 Sunday newspapers including, Atlanta Journal & Constitution, The Baltimore Sun, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Dallas Morning News, The Los Angeles Times, The Miami Herald, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, The Philadelphia Inquirer, San Francisco Examiner & Chronicle, Seattle Times & Post Intelligence, and The Washington Post.
The number of people outside the science community who now realize that nanotechnology exists and that is about very small and very powerful things, increased immensely through these publications. And we haven’t even seen the movie, which is currently in development by Twentieth Century Fox.
The Parade article made clear that technology has been with us a long time and some technologies have impacted humanity’s development more than others. The article clearly defines nanotechnology as being one of these technologies. The original article is posted on the Foresight website and is discussed in greater detail within this issue of Foresight Update.
Foresight Chairman, Eric Drexler, was quoted in the Parade article expressing the well-known concerns of Foresight Institute. The fact that this quote was included in a mass-market article published to support the promotion of a major fiction- thriller is a prime example of the nanotechnology’s crossing into mainstream thought:
“There are many people, including myself, who are quite queasy about the consequence of this technology for the future. We are talking about changing so many things that the risk of society handling it poorly through lack of preparation is very large.”
— Eric Drexler, Ph.D.
Overall, the Parade piece was relatively balanced and agreed with Foresight views. Getting this into the homes of 35 million people is an example of our success in spreading our ideas.
Some other media coverage consisted of responses to Crichton’s book promotion, such as the headlines from the Chicago Sun Times, November 24, 2003, “Nanovelociraptors — Those Crichton beasts get loose again in a very tiny sort of way,” and “Small is Evil, Next Stop — Nano Phobia,”Toronto Globe and Mail, November 25, 2003.
Neil Morgan, San Diego Union-Tribune, wrote in a column dated two months after the book release: “If, on these rainy evenings, you’re lost in Michael Crichton’s new novel, Prey, you’ll be scared sleepless to compare Crichton’s plot line with a massively parallel news report in The New York Times on Feb. 7, with attribution to the National Science Foundation: ‘Nanotechnology, biotechnology, electronics and brain research are converging into a new field of science vital to the nation’s security and economic clout.’ But, Morgan asserts, “if you’re reading, Prey, is it already too late?”
Nanotechnology Ethics and Issues Discussions
To add further attention to fear-based discussion of nanotechnology, the ETC Group released its report, The Big Down: Atomtech — Technologies Converging at the Nanoscale, a few months after the release of Prey.
On February 3, 2003, The New York Times ran an article by Barnaby J. Feder, “From Nanotechnology’s Sidelines, One More Warning.” This article covered the release of The Big Downand quotes several nanotechnology industry leaders regarding the pros, cons and credibility of Pat Mooney and ETC’s report. Excerpts from these quotes are listed below:
In a telephone interview last week, Mihail C. Roco, the head of the United States government National Nanotechnology Initiative, dismiss ETC as “nonscientific” and “a group that fights against nanotechnology.” In fact, though Mr. Mooney agrees completely with authorities like Mr. Roco that nanotechnology is the next big thing.
“Making fun of Pat Mooney is not the way to go here,” said Christine Peterson, co-founder and president of the Foresight Institute, nanotechnology’s leading forum for discussion. “This is a sincere, smart man who doesn’t have any trouble with logic.”
Another expert who voices a least grudging respect is Kevin D. Ausman, executive director for operations at the Center for Biological Environmental Nanotechnology at Rice University, a new federally financed research center. “ETC is the first nonscientific group to start to address the issue of toxic impact of nanomaterials.”
In response to Pat Mooney calling for a moratorium on research and commercial uses of nanotechnology, Christine Peterson recalls Mr. Mooney’s response when she questioned him on his strategy of calling for a moratorium. “It gets people’s attention.”
More evidence on how pervasive the message that nanotechnology issues should be addressed is an article in a leading Silicon Valley business publication. On February 23, 2003, Silicon Valley Biz Ink, ran an article by Rhonda Ascierto, “The Next Small Thing.” This article discussed nanotechnology’s promising uses in the computer and bioscience industry. There is a cautionary quote from Christine Peterson:
“Societies and individuals will need to decide whether or not to take advantage of (new) capabilities,” says Christine Peterson, co-founder and president of Foresight Institute, a Palo Alto nanotech think tank. “Any technology has the possibility of error…the quality control challenges are going to significant.”
February 13, 2003, Reuter News Report, by Raji Sekhri “Canada Scientists Warn of Brewing Nanotech Battle” According to this article scientists and activists are on a collision course over a nanotechnology. The article mentions Prey and the gray goo scenario.
“The scary scenarios are the ones that will undermine public confidence and support of nanotechnology,” said Dr. Abdallah Daar, director of the Joint Centre for Bioethics at the University of Toronto, who is also co-author of a study published in the British Journal, Nanotechnology.
His co-author Dr. Pete Singer, further states, “We see a widening gap between the science and the ethics. The backlash is already gathering momentum and we’ve seen calls for a moratorium.”
The January/February 2003 issue of Small Times Magazine featured an extensive feature article written by Candace Stuart, “Nano’s Balancing Act” This article observes that the ethics discussion is rapidly moving into the public forum, specifically in the context of the environment. According to the article:
Nanotechnology is experiencing a common cycle for emerging technologies, according to Glenn Harlan Reynolds, a law professor at the University of Tennessee College of Law, and a frequent author of nanotechnology. He also serves on the board of directors for the Foresight Institute, an education organization whose guidelines on the development of molecular nanotechnology emphasize environmental care.
“This feels like the first wave of popular interest,” said Reynolds, who published a paper in November anticipating pressures to regulate nanotechnology. “First they say it is a pipe dream and then they transition to saying it is dangerous. Now it has gotten enough attention to attract policy makers.”
Other News — not reacting to Prey or ETC
New York Times – January 4, 2003, Saturday. At the end of every year, John Brockman, a literary agent and the publisher of Edge.org, a Web site devoted to science, poses a question to leading scientists, writers and futurists. In 2002, he asked respondents to imagine that they had been nominated as White House science advisor and that President Bush had sought their answer to the question “What are the pressing scientific issues for the nation and the world, and what is your advice on how I can begin to deal with them?”
The following is Eric Drexler’s response, “Think Small”, about the near-term commercial focus on nanotech and its impact on nanotech’s future:
The United States has been increasing its research efforts in a broad field called nanotechnology. Nanotechnology—its name comes from the Greek work for dwarf—refers to mechanical engineering on a molecular scale. Technology based on molecular manufacturing will lead to computer systems a billion times more powerful than what we have today, aerospace vehicles with 98 percent less structural mass, and medical tools that can repair tissues, organs and cells at a microscopic level.
Molecular manufacturing will be based on molecular machine systems able to manipulate and assemble molecular components to make larger products. If you look in a conventional factory today, you will see electronic devices sensing and controlling processes, but the actual work shaping, moving and assembling parts is done by machines that, quite naturally, use moving parts to move parts.
Yet today’s research programs are not focused on developing the molecular machine technologies essential to molecular manufacturing. Researchers often see any machinery as somehow archaic, left over from the 19th century. Thus interest in topics like biotechnology and microelectronics has diverted resources into short-term efforts that are worth doing, but not at the expense of neglecting the long-term promise of nanotechnology.
— K. Eric Drexler, founder of the Foresight Institute and author of Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing and Computation; Unbounding the Future.
Ralph Merkle Leaves Zyvex
From a press release issued by Zyvex on February 21, 2003, Nanotechnology Visionary Ralph C. Merkle Sets Up Independent Practice; Noted Scientist to Pursue Consulting, Speaking:
Dr. Ralph C. Merkle, Nanotechnology Theorist at Zyvex Corporation, stepped down from his position at the end of February to pursue independent consulting and speaking on the topics of computer security and nanotechnology.
Merkle is the winner of the 1998 Feynman Prize in Nanotechnology for theory. He also co-invented public key cryptography and received the ACM Kanellakis Award, the IEEE Kobayashi Award, and the 2000 RSA Award in Mathematics for his work in computer security.
“Zyvex is the world’s greatest nanotechnology company, and the four years I’ve been here have seen remarkable progress. Nanotechnology and Zyvex have moved squarely into the mainstream,” said Dr. Merkle. “It’s difficult to leave, especially when there are so many exciting new developments at Zyvex, but the commute to Texas is just too difficult these days.”
Merkle, who lives in the California Bay Area, has been commuting regularly between Texas and California since 1999.
“We’ll miss Ralph, and wish him all the best,” said James Von Ehr, Founder, Chairman, and CEO of Zyvex. “He’s made so many contributions to Zyvex, both personally and on a professional level, that it’s hard to imagine Zyvex without him. I am sure that Ralph’s ideas will continue to inspire visionaries and annoy reactionaries.”
Merkle pursued research in nanotechnology and computer security at Xerox PARC for over a decade before joining Zyvex in 1999. He has been a long-time supporter of the Foresight Institute, a California non-profit organization focused on nanotechnology, where he is currently Vice President of Technology Assessment. He has given hundreds of talks to a wide range of academic, business, and general audiences.
Judy Conner is the Public Service Communications Manager at Foresight Institute. She can be reached at email@example.com.